‘We Wanted Our Coffee Black’: Public Enemy, Improvisation, and Noise
Critical Studies in Improvisation.
In Music and Discourse, Jean-Jacques Nattiez theorizes that noise is not only subjective, its definition, and that of music itself, is culturally specific: “There is never a singular, culturally dominant conception of music; rather, we see a whole spectrum of conceptions, from those of the entire society to those of a single individual” (43). Noise in this context is therefore most often positioned as the result of music that runs contrary to an established set of rules. However subjective the assessments of both the musical producer and listener, Nattiez notes that these “‘criteria’ are always defined in relation to a threshold of acceptability encompassing bearable volume, the existence of fixed pitches, and a notion of order – which are only arbitrarily defined as norms” (45).
If these criteria are arbitrary, then music might just as arbitrarily be redefined to valorize noise rather than eschew it, something true of Public Enemy and their musical aesthetic of noise. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) uses saxophone samples in many songs that act in tandem with the lyrics to form “an aggression against the code-structuring messages” (Attali 27) found in popular music conventions. Moreover, noise has been a part of the musical landscape for longer than we might think. Public Enemy’s examples are comparable to the use of dissonance in the music of jazz legends Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and others. Through a process that emphasized improvisation, Public Enemy created noise with saxophone squeals, erratic drums, and countless scratches on Nation. The album influenced numerous hip-hop artists, and it stands today as a critically lauded and influential album. This paper investigates Public Enemy’s use of saxophone samples as a strategy of creating noise as representative of ideals contrary to conventional Western musical practices, and as a bridge to African-American musical practices and suppressed voices of the past.